Rudolfo Anaya writes: "The tree, or the tree of life, is also a dominant symbol of the Americas, and its syncretic image combines the tree of Quetzalcoatl and the cross of Christ. My ancestors nourished the tree of life; now it is up to me to care for all it symbolizes." It is a compelling analogy. Just as the cross keeps Christian faith rooted in the practice of discipleship and solidarity with the poor, so can the "tree of life" keep us rooted in the soil of real and beloved places. Just as the cross takes differing forms in varying contexts, so will the tree of life differ from georegion to georegion. In Arizona it might be the saguaro cactus, in northern California, the redwood, and in Baja, the yucca. But in central and southern California, the tree of life is most assuredly the oak tree.
California is home to nine species of oak trees (genus Quercus). They occur from the Oregon border to Baja California and are found on offshore islands, along the coast, over most of the foothills, and throughout the valleys and high mountains of the state's interior. The noble Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia), with its magnificent gnarled and spreading architecture, is the species I know and love best, since it is the most widespread in from the coastal plains and protected bluffs to the inland arroyos and foothills of central and southern California. To "read" the oak is to understand the land and people of this place; it is thus a theological text. What might a teologia de los robles look like?
No matter how far one digs through the cultural-historical strata of this place, the oak is always there. The human history of California began in the shade of her native oaks. Acorn foods sustained many diverse Indian cultures that evolved and thrived among the woodlands for centuries... It is not surprising that oaks were revered by native Californians, held sacred in elaborate acorn ceremonies, and depicted as symbols of fertility, strength, and oneness with the earth. Acorns, much more nutritious than basic European foodstuffs, represented the staple of the Indian diet in most places, where economic life centered on gathering and storing them. Acorns were second only to salt among the food items most frequently traded among native Californians, and were used as well for medicine, dyes, toys and music. Acorns represented to some tribes the Ikxareyavs ("Spirit People"), and were present in ritual life from birth (some tribes tied an infant's umbilical chord to the branches of an oak) to death (mourners were purified by the smoke of oak boughs and painted with acorn ash).